Barber’s rich second collection of writings and teachings from 18th century Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz continues the project of offering the English world its first translations of the work of the storied Kabbalist, but with an inviting twist. This time, demonstrating that it’s erroneous to believe that “the teachings of our great rabbis do not speak and address the issues that we face in the twenty-first century,” the material is arranged for reader accessibility, by topics (alphabetically ordered chapter titles include perennial concerns like “Conflict,” “Honesty,” “Marriage,” and “Punishment”), with Barber taking what he calls “the liberty” to translate with an eye for the “spirit of the ideas” rather than the direct literal translations of the earlier work, while also offering quick, clarifying commentary about how those ideas apply to contemporary life.
The result is illuminating and engaging, a user-friendly collection that’s no less profound than its predecessor but significantly more suited to browsing—and more welcoming to non-expert readers eager to make a connection to one of the great experts on Jewish law. This new approach means the language here is less rich, but Barber’s distillations of the rabbi’s teaching on topics like circumcision preserves the richness and power of the original writing, in prose that’s scrupulously clear and precise: “If Abraham and his descendants needed to be circumcised to reach perfection, why were they not born circumcised? God wanted man to play an active role in bringing himself and the world to a level of perfection.”
Barber’s helpful additions, clearly marked in italics, continue that spirit of lucidity, at times going beyond explanations to offer compelling fresh examples, surprising connections (he draws on Mark Twain in the excellent chapter on Israel), and of-our-age advice, when he notes, sensibly, in the chapter on “Fear” that some debilitating fears need to be treated by professionals. This second collection is companionable, often challenging in its ideas but always rewarding and never obscure.
Takeaway: An inviting collection of insights and teachings from a great 18th century rabbi, freshly translated into English.
Great for fans of: Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz’s Pearls of Wisdom, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
BookLife Prize - 2022
Plot/Idea: 8 out of 10
Originality: 7 out of 10
Prose: 8 out of 10
Character/Execution: 9 out of 10
Overall: 8.00 out of 10
Plot/Idea: Barber uses inspiration from ancient writings of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz but takes them a step further. Barber’s work offers philosophical exploration, but also instructs readers on ways to apply the valuable ideas in daily life.
Prose: Even though the writing is based on teachings of the Torah, Barber’s explanations are easy to understand and broadly relatable. His tone and words are comforting and therapeutic to the reader.
Originality: Barber brings a fresh and unique perspective to the ancient texts and teachings he presents.
Character/Execution: Barber’s organization is spot on. He makes the text accessible by alphabetizing the entries according to topic; this enables readers to browse the teachings at their own pace.
Date Submitted: October 13, 2022
The teachings of an 18th-century rabbi are explored in this hybrid translation, commentary, and reference book.
Born in Pintshov, Poland, in 1696, Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz delivered teachings that have influenced generations of Jewish scholars, but they have been obscured in the public eye due to a lack of translations from the Hebrew and his esoteric writing style. After a serendipitous encounter with Barber, an internationally acclaimed rabbi and motivational speaker, Eybeshitz’s descendant Julie Gerber was inspired to produce an English translation of her ancestor’s rich body of work. This collaboration between Barber and Gerber resulted in the 2021 book Pearls of Wisdom, which offered English readers an unfiltered translation of the rabbi’s oeuvre. Recognizing the difficulties that many lay readers may have in grasping Eybeshitz’s writings, Barber offers this sequel to the general public, which is a more accessible translation of the rabbi’s works accompanied by a wealth of contextual and religious commentary. The book begins with a brief look at the life and legacy of “a charismatic rabbi, an expert on Jewish law, a master Kabbalist, a prolific writer, a peacemaker, and so much more.” The bulk of the volume focuses on the “Torah Giant’s” thoughts on topics that span from angels and divine communication to fish and tefillin. On wealth, for instance, Eybeshitz cautions: “Money doesn’t just go into a person’s pocket or bank account; it also goes to a person’s head.” On the Exodus story where God sends manna for sustenance, the rabbi reminds readers that although “we no longer have food falling from heaven…that shouldn’t stop us from marveling at the tremendous acts of kindness that God bestowed on our forebearers.”
The 112 concise chapters follow a similar pattern, interspersing translations of Eybeshitz’s writings with Barber’s commentary. Eschewing precision for accessibility, the author’s translation focuses “more on the spirit and ideas” of Eybeshitz than “on a more literal” approach. Each section ends with a modern-day application of the writings. At almost 350 pages, this work is not designed to be read in a single sitting but ideally a chapter at a time, as readers are encouraged to meditate on the teachings and their implications for contemporary life. The author of multiple books on Jewish history and spirituality who has received both Rabbinic Ordination and Judiciary Ordination, Barber is an ideal translator and commentator, merging an expertise on complex spiritual teachings with a keen eye toward their applicability. For rabbis and academics, this is a sound reference tool backed by more than 300 footnotes that demonstrate a full command of the relevant literature. Alternately, Barber’s writing style excels at making the esoteric accessible, and he crafts a practical work that will appeal to lay readers, who are eased into complicated topics with ample context and commentary. This user-friendly approach extends to a glossary, the volume’s topical organization, and brief introductory chapters that provide important contextualization. Despite the book’s emphasis on contemporary relevance, there are some subjects left unaddressed, including LGBTQ+ issues, reproductive rights, and systemic racism. There is still much of value in this inspirational volume, particularly its reminder to look beyond people’s “superficial faults to the core of their beautiful soul.” A well-researched, accessible guide to an important but often overlooked Jewish thinker.